Ranking the NBA divisions: Atlantic surges to the top

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With the start of the 2022-23 NBA season approaching, here's how we've ranked the league's six divisions in terms of strength and competitiveness.

6. Northwest

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The Northwest Division may have experienced more dramatic changes than any other grouping in basketball. Leading the way will likely be the Denver Nuggets, who have made four straight playoff runs led by the back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic. The Nuggets bring back their second- and third-best players who missed most of last season - Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. - to a team that won 48 games without them.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Timberwolves and Portland Trail Blazers should be vastly improved. Minnesota adds star big man Rudy Gobert to a tantalizing young core and could challenge Denver for top spot in the division. While Portland's outlook may not be quite as rosy, bringing superstar Damian Lillard back into the fold with a solid supporting cast should push the Blazers firmly ahead of their 27-55 mark last year.

On the flip side, the Utah Jazz will almost certainly have the biggest drop-off league-wide after shipping away their entire core, including Gobert and new Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell. Joining them in the NBA's basement will likely be the rebuilding Oklahoma City Thunder, who are set to play the entire campaign without No. 2 pick Chet Holmgren.

5. Southeast

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The Atlanta Hawks and Miami Heat have each made an Eastern Conference Finals appearance over the past two seasons. After an emphatic first-round loss to Miami as an 8-seed in the 2022 playoffs, Atlanta added All-Star Dejounte Murray in a push to become a true contender. Miami brings back most of the core that earned the East's top seed last season. Both teams should be playoff locks, but neither appears to have an NBA Finals ceiling, limiting this division's true high-end outcomes.

The Charlotte Hornets and Washington Wizards should both compete for play-in spots once again. Charlotte brought back head coach Steve Clifford, who should help the defense improve, but won't have Miles Bridges, so it's hard to see a path to major progress. The Wizards shook up the supporting cast around Bradley Beal, but their roster still leaves much to be desired.

Finally, the Orlando Magic have reason for optimism with No. 1 pick Paolo Banchero entering the season as the Rookie of the Year favorite. Still, this is a rebuilding squad that isn't ready to compete for a play-in spot.

4. Southwest

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The Southwest Division has a case to be higher in these rankings, as it's led by the Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks. Memphis won 56 games and earned the West's No. 2 seed last season, while Dallas reached the conference finals before falling to the eventual champion Golden State Warriors. While both teams may be title contenders, they enter the campaign with major questions. The Grizzlies' most impactful defender, Jaren Jackson Jr., could miss months due to a foot injury. Meanwhile, the Mavericks lost second-leading scorer Jalen Brunson in free agency.

The New Orleans Pelicans are the swing team in this division. After an encouraging postseason appearance, the Pelicans are hoping Zion Williamson can return to full health and guide them to a deeper playoff run. On paper, this team has the talent to win multiple series, but Williamson's health has been a constant issue. If he can stay on the floor and develop chemistry with CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram, New Orleans could earn home-court advantage in the first round.

The Southwest's ranking is dragged down by the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs. Houston has built a promising young core but is terrible defensively and is positioned well to earn another high lottery pick in 2023. San Antonio might have the worst roster in the league as it enters full rebuild mode following the Dejounte Murray trade. Even Gregg Popovich advised fans not to hope for something special this season.

3. Central

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Look out Milwaukee Bucks, your reign of terror on the Central Division may soon be in jeopardy. The Bucks have finished first in four straight seasons after not doing so once in the first 14 years of the current alignment. While the dominant core of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday should take home the crown for a fifth consecutive year, the gap between them and the rest is smaller than in previous seasons.

Leading the charge on that front are the Cleveland Cavaliers, who broke out last year behind the play of All-Star point guard Darius Garland and the defensive fortitude of All-Rookie selection Evan Mobley. The young core will be joined by a superstar in Donovan Mitchell and should be a threat for years to come. The solid Chicago Bulls are worth mentioning in this tier too, though much of their success could come down to how much time lead guard Lonzo Ball misses with a knee injury.

Even the bottom-feeders seem to be on the upswing. The Detroit Pistons, led by an electric young backcourt of Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey, could be knocking on the door of the play-in tournament as soon as this season, while a talented core may make the Indiana Pacers' rebuild a brief one.

2. Pacific

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On star power alone, the Pacific Division should be a clear No. 1 in these rankings, but several questions remain for many teams. Chief among the unknowns are the two Los Angeles squads. The Clippers' duo of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George makes the club a title contender if healthy, but that's a big if, and it's only compounded by the addition of the injury-prone John Wall. Meanwhile, the well-documented saga between Russell Westbrook and the Lakers may create issues so big that even LeBron James can't solve them.

The Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns should be the two "safe" teams in this grouping, but even that is not a given. The potential of a championship hangover for an aging Warriors core is within the realm of possibility, and the Suns' chemistry may be called into question after Deandre Ayton's tumultuous offseason as a restricted free agent and Jae Crowder's current desire to leave town.

One can't talk about questions without mentioning the Sacramento Kings, now owners of the longest playoff drought in North American sports. While the Kings should be better behind De'Aaron Fox and Damontas Sabonis, their inclusion in this division doesn't help its case for the top spot.

1. Atlantic

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We've come a long way from the days of the Process-era Philadelphia 76ers. The Atlantic is now loaded with three title contenders: Philadelphia, the Boston Celtics, and the Brooklyn Nets. The Sixers begin their first full season with a rejuvenated James Harden to pair with perennial MVP candidate Joel Embiid. Boston, for all its concerns in recent weeks, is fresh off a Finals appearance. And the Nets bring back Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, with Ben Simmons apparently ready to return to the court. Brooklyn's situation is as fragile as any team in recent memory, but the Nets still boast one of the NBA's most talented squads. If he's healthy and brings maximum effort, Simmons' defense and playmaking could make him a great fit with his co-stars.

The Atlantic is the only division with four clear playoff teams. In addition to the aforementioned championship contenders, this division features the Toronto Raptors, who may not have the upside for a deep postseason run but should still be too good for the play-in tournament. The Raptors didn't add much this offseason but appear to be banking on internal development from their young players.

The New York Knicks round out this group. They went 37-45 last season, finishing six games out of the play-in tournament. New York signed Jalen Brunson, who should provide some much-needed juice on offense. It wouldn't be surprising to see the Knicks earn a spot in the play-in, especially if Brunson can help Julius Randle return to something resembling his 2021 All-Star form. New York probably being the worst team in the Atlantic speaks to the depth and top-end talent in the NBA's best division.

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Ranking the NBA divisions: Atlantic surges to the top
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